Good Reads: Drones, Al Qaeda, and American exceptionalism
The debate over the use of drones – President Obama's weapon of choice in the war against Al Qaeda – has gathered steam after the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
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Even when drones get their man, significant questions arise about whether the killing would be legal under the US Constitution, which starts with the premise that individuals are considered innocent until proved guilty in a court. Lawyers working for the Obama White House have argued that such killings are legal, as noted in this New York Times piece.Skip to next paragraph
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Bruce Ackerman writes in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration’s reliance on a Justice Department memo allowing drone strikes is just as indefensible as the Bush administration’s reliance on a Justice Department memo allowing the US of torture against Al Qaeda suspects.
Christopher Hitchens, writing for Slate, seems willing to cut Obama some slack, arguing that the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution simply couldn’t imagine a world in which drones could exist, and that US courts are struggling to find 18th century justifications for a 21st century war.
But perhaps the larger issue of what’s at stake is the very idea of America itself. Americans like to think of their society as being rooted in fairness, law, decency. Is it any wonder, then, that the citizens of other nations – particularly liberal Pakistanis or justice-minded South Africans who otherwise embrace “American” notions of liberty and fairness – are becoming increasingly suspicious of the actions of a globally powerful country like the US that can turn off a life with the flick of a switch?
In any case, Steven Walt reminds us in a piece for Foreign Policy that history is littered with great empires that cherished their own “exceptionalism.” The more influence they wielded, and the more their ideas were accepted, the less exceptional those great empires became.
Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others. The British thought they were bearing the "white man's burden," while French colonialists invoked la mission civilisatrice to justify their empire. Portugal, whose imperial activities were hardly distinguished, believed it was promoting a certain missão civilizadora. Even many of the officials of the former Soviet Union genuinely believed they were leading the world toward a socialist utopia despite the many cruelties that communist rule inflicted. Of course, the United States has by far the better claim to virtue than Stalin or his successors, but Obama was right to remind us that all countries prize their own particular qualities.